One of the most dangerous things that can happen to us in our business career is to make the mistake of stereotyping our adversary. In the world of government contracting, the two most common stereotypes are (1) all government employees are stupid and lazy and (2) all contractor employees are thieves and liars who are out to bamboozle the government.
There are several problems with both of those statements, of course, but the most obvious is how absurd these stereotypes become when the two sides sit down at a table to negotiate: half the government team used to work for industry, where presumably they were thieves, and half of the contractor’s team used to work for the government, where presumably they were stupid and lazy.
My first boss in a government contracting office taught me how dangerous these stereotypes can be, not by what he told me, but by how he did his job. When everyone else left late in the afternoon, he stayed. If he had a negotiation coming up, he stayed late, sometimes for several nights in a row. (This was years before the virtual office arrived.) In every negotiation that I saw him conduct, he was far and away the most prepared person at the table.
For companies meeting him for the first time, the looks of shock, and sometimes panic, were a source of great amusement for his colleagues—he did not fit the contractor’s stereotype of a Government employee. On the other hand, those contractors who had dealt with him before treated him with great respect and came prepared for a grilling. Over time I realized that the deals struck in those sessions produced the best examples of successful negotiations because both sides walked away from the table knowing that they had done their very best and were able to come to an agreement despite not getting everything they wanted.
Of course, stereotypes are not limited to the two discussed above. Within an industry, certain companies have reputations, and people are often shocked when a person from that company does not fit that mold at all. Moreover, stereotypes based on race, age, religion, gender, nationality, sexual preference and geography, as pernicious as they are, often creep into the picture. If you perceive this happening with your team members, you have to cut it off immediately.
Lessons learned as a young negotiator
I learned a lot as a young agency negotiator, and perhaps my most vivid memory is of the time that I watched stereotypes work against my colleagues. As a novice, my role in this negotiation was as an observer. During the preparation stage, I listened as my colleagues told me about the Texans that would be coming to town. They would laugh as they would describe their western outfits, mimic their southern drawls and dish out some folksy expressions, all of which painted a picture of a bunch of nice, but harmless, people. The impression I got from my colleagues was that our team would have no problem getting what it wanted in the upcoming negotiation, and I was eager to see them in action.
Finally, the big day came. I was amused to see the Texans, all of whom had dressed the part, deliver as expected. They wore 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots. Their demeanor was one of courtly manners and an almost fawning deference. But more than that, their folksy sayings, uttered in a deep southern drawl, made our team members believe that, as predicted, they were superior in every way to these bumpkins.
Once the negotiation was completed, and our guests had departed, our team remained in the conference room congratulating each other on the great deal they had just struck and taking great delight in mimicking our opponent’s team members’ mannerisms and expressions. As this went on, I happened to peek out the window of our 10th-floor conference room, and I noticed the Texans walking across the street in front of our building, pulling off their 10-gallon hats and their string ties, and slapping each other on the back.
I got the strangest feeling, later confirmed by the way things turned out, that the Texans had gotten exactly what they wanted out of that negotiation. In order to do that, they had to play to the stereotypes they knew existed, and they did it to perfection.
The point is: We’re all the same! We are in an industry with a revolving door Until the other person shows that she is a crook or a dummy, you must trust her. We cannot deal in good faith until we have faith in one another.
Stereotypes prevent this from happening, and you must avoid this trap at all costs.
Author Tim Sullivan is the chair of Thompson Coburn’s Government Contracts Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-585-6930.